The state Assembly on Wednesday night cleared the way for a vote in November on a constitutional amendment that would make it easier for local governments in the Adirondacks and Catskills to use state lands when there's a municipal need.
The New York Forest Preserve Land Bank Amendment will be voted on in a statewide referendum Nov. 7. It would establish a 250-acre land bank that communities in the Adirondack and Catskill state parks could draw on when they need to build roads, drill public water wells, install water and sewer lines, install broadband or conduct other public-benefit activities on state land in their communities.
State land in the two parks is otherwise considered "forever wild," but the proposed amendment would allow communities to use some of that land, in return for helping purchase land for public use elsewhere in the park. The state would acquire 250 acres of new land for the Forest Preserve to serve as the "bank" for communities to draw on.
Under the current law, specific land swaps need to be negotiated in each case, and put to statewide referendum. It last happened in 2009, when state voters approved an amendment allowing a power transmission line to be built on state land to serve Tupper Lake; in 2013, in an arrangement the land bank wouldn't cover, a private mining company in Lewis was approved to swap land with the state so it could mine what was then state land.
The idea of the amendment is to simplify that process, and not require small land swaps to require a constitutional amendment.
"As the sponsor of numerous constitutional amendments, I know how time consuming, costly and uncertain the process is," said state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, who represents most of the Adirondacks. "The goal of the amendment that a broad group of stakeholders have collaborated on is to create a very specific category of projects to address health and safety issues in our communities without the need to amend the constitution in every instance."
The proposed amendment passed both houses of the Legislature without opposition in June 2016, and passed the Senate this year in March. Wednesday's Assembly vote means it has now passed both houses twice in different legislative sessions — a requirement for putting a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot.
The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit land conservancy that has played a key intermediary role in many Forest Preserve land deals, issued a statement praising the proposed amendment.
“The Nature Conservancy was proud to work in partnership with state legislators, local governments and environmental advocacy organizations to support this ‘win-win’ legislation, which enhances the sustainability of Adirondack and Catskill Park communities, as well the conservation of natural resources," said Stuart F. Gruskin, chief conservation and external affairs officer for the organization's New York chapter.
“The new amendment will help to continue to build and develop communities throughout the Adirondacks. Extending broadband fiber cable to remote communities of the Adirondacks will help to expand educational and economic development opportunities," said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks.
"If approved by the voters in November, this will foster a more vibrant local economy while respecting the integrity and legacy of ‘forever wild’ land protections," said William C. Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council.